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If you have back pain lasting longer than six weeks, you should see your doctor.

If you have back pain lasting longer than six weeks, you should see your doctor.
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Back pain

What is back pain?

Back pain is very common and affects most people at some point in their life. It usually feels like an ache, tension or stiffness in your back.

Back pain can be caused by a number of things, such as a sudden movement or fall, an injury or other medical condition. It’s usually caused by the way the bones, discs, tendons, muscles and ligaments interact and work together.

Lower back pain is very common. Around 80% of Australians experience back pain and 10% have significant disability as a result.

People of all ages are affected by back pain, and although it generally clears up in a few days or weeks, sometimes back pain can be ongoing.

It’s important not to restrict your movement too much. Even if your back is very painful, slow and gentle movements are better than lying still in bed. It will keep your back moving and will lead to your back becoming more supple and flexible.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists and Australian Physiotherapy Association recommend that an X-ray in response to low back pain is only needed if you have other significant symptoms such as problems with bladder and bowel control, severe pain or weakness or numbness in one or both legs. For more information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

If you have back pain lasting longer than six weeks, you should see your doctor who can provide additional advice and treatment if necessary.

Facts & figures

  • Estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007–08 National Health Survey suggest that about 1.8 million Australians (9.2% of the population) have back problems.
  • It has been estimated that 70–90% of people suffer from lower back pain in some form at some point in their lives.
  • Back problems are a common reason for pain among younger and middle-aged adults, but they can start early in life – between ages 8 and 10.
  • Pain is the key symptom in most back problems. One study of people with long-term back problems suggested that 14% experience constant or persistent pain, and 86% experience pain one day per week.
  • According to the National Hospital Morbidity Database (NHMD), in 2010-11 there were 93,564 hospitalisations with a principal diagnosis of back problems. The common reasons for hospitalisations were:
    • low back pain (27.7% of hospitalisations for back problems)
    • narrowing of the spinal canal (spinal stenosis) (14.1%)
    • pain including tingling, numbness and weakness in the legs that starts from the lower back (sciatica) (13.8%).

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your back pain, why not use healthdirect’s online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.

The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).

Last reviewed: July 2015

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